Reflections on the succession process, on the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination
The historians of ancient Rome – both contemporary and throughout the ages since – have written a great deal about the difference between “bad emperors” and “good emperors.” Nero and Caligula, for example, were off-the-charts terrible, while Augustus, Trajan, Antonius Pius, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius were terrific.
Of the dozens of emperors in Rome’s long-lasting empire, why were some good and others bad, when they all tended to have similar education, family background, ethnicity, experience, and military background? One of the theories was adoption vs. birth. Not the only theory, by any means, but one of the big ones has always been that the emperors who adopted his heir when the heir was already an adult tended to be succeeded by successful emperors, while those who died without choosing an heir left squabbling, incompetence, corruption, or civil war for years to come, as heirs by birth and claimants by political or military right would fight over the job.
For this reason, for some historians, the key determinant in whether a Roman Emperor was “good” is only determined after his death, when we see how his successor does. You can hardly be considered a good emperor if you’ve left naught but destruction in your wake.
Throughout history, the problem of succession has plagued every hereditary monarchy. Most use primogeniture – the eldest son inherits the throne, no matter whether he’s the brightest of the lot or the dunce of the family.
The Franks famously split their nations between all the sons of the late king, so brothers had to fight each other for supremacy every generation, putting an unnecessary expiration date even on such successful monarchies as those of Pepin the Short and his son Charlemagne.
Henry VIII – in his quest for a healthy son to inherit the throne – utterly bankrupted his nation, tyrannized the citizenry, attacked the Church and turned heretic. His entire long reign was concentrated on the process of succession.
Republics are blessed with elected heads of state, eliminating this whole problem (we hope)… a president or prime minister steps down at the end of his term, and there’s another free election. Simple. Even if the president or prime minister dies in office, the mechanics of the election process are intended to take care of the country.
We in the United States handle this succession process with a two-tiered approach. Either a president finishes his term and nicely hands over power to his successor, or he dies in office (or, once, resigns the office mid-term), to be succeeded by a vice president, just to smoothly finish out the term. No squabbling, no civil war, no challenges (at least, not since John Tyler did it first in 1841).
The Founders’ Plan
The Founding Fathers had a plan for the presidential succession. Since they didn’t foresee political parties (which seems amazing to us in hindsight, but the first decade under the Articles, parties never developed, so they had good reason to assume parties could be avoided), they came up with an amazingly non-partisan approach: The winner of a presidential election would be the president, and the first runner-up would be the vice president. If the winner lived through his term, the vice president had a significant role as both part of the executive branch and part of the Senate, and if the winner died or resigned, the vice president – who, remember, was presumably the winner’s main opponent – would succeed him.
As odd as this feels today, the approach meant that the president would ALWAYS be someone consciously selected by a lot of people as the leader… the president would be the first choice of most, and if he was succeeded by his vice president, that would be someone who was the first choice for the presidency of the second largest group of electors. There would always be legitimacy, in theory… and it was thought to be safe at the time because American politics didn’t have a terribly wide range of disagreement in those days.
During the Founding era, virtually everyone believed in severely limited government power, and severely limited government employment (the entire treasury only employed a couple dozen Customs officers and clerks; the entire state department only employed a couple dozen ambassadors and secretaries). The only disputes were around the edges… Should we favor France or England in our trade? Should we call the president His Excellency or Mr. President? Should the government be allowed to charter a bank? In modern terms, these are minor disagreements. Our Founders were, for the most part, all on the same page.
The Founders’ Plan Crashes into Reality
It didn’t take long for this plan to be changed. After the incredible rancor of the Adams administration, during which the Vice President operated a political organization in opposition to the administration he was a part of… and the 1800 election, in which the winner campaigned on a ticket with a runningmate he didn’t trust… there was a national decision to change the way we selected the Vice President. Amendment XII was ratified in 1804, and Presidents and Vice Presidents could formally campaign on a joint ticket.
Depending on the party and the year, the runningmate has generally been selected for geographical or ideological balance, to help the presidential candidate win the election. Jefferson was a Virginian, Burr and Clinton were New Yorkers. Madison was from Virginia, Gerry was from Massachusetts. Monroe was another Virginian, Tompkins was another New Yorker. And so it went through the years. A conservative or liberal would pick a moderate; a moderate would pick a conservative or liberal. Often the party had a large role and forced a choice on the nominee; often the nominee had the larger role and has made his choice without his party’s input.
Lincoln picked Hamlin, Garfield picked Arthur, McKinley picked Roosevelt, Harding picked Coolidge. Again, it may be an exaggeration to say the winner picked his runningmate in all these cases; sometimes the party convention decided for him, so that the entire ticket was truly a joint choice by the party.
But the important thing today is that, during most presidential election years, the choice of a runningmate has been made with more of an eye toward winning the presidential election for the main nominee, than with any eye to the succession.
Our Founding Fathers intended for succession to be the brilliant, key purpose for the role; a smooth succession would prove its genius, they believed. Modern presidents don’t always think of that; they choose the runningmate who’ll help them win.
George W. Bush is one of the relatively few presidents who is on record as having chosen his runningmate not for potential addition of votes (Dick Cheney’s Wyoming couldn’t flip to the Democrats if they offered the voters diamond-encrusted ballots), but because he wanted the most qualified possible successor waiting in the wings. Bush knew that there was no more experienced person for the job; if Cheney had to take over, he’d be able to take the reins without a pause.
But the Bush-Cheney selection is a rarity today. Eisenhower picked Nixon to win California in 1952; Carter picked Mondale to ensure the liberals wouldn’t sit out 1976; Reagan picked Bush to ensure that the moderates didn’t sit out 1980. All had enough policy disagreements with their vice presidents that it was incredibly clear that they were thinking of the election, not the succession… when in fact, the only real purpose for the vice presidency – yes, the ONLY one – is and has always been for the succession.
Dealey Plaza on the Day America Wept
On November 22, 1963, just shy of three years into his presidency, Jack Kennedy of Massachusetts was assassinated at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas.
For fifty years, Americans have evaluated the presidency of John F. Kennedy in the prisms of his 34 months in office. On economics and crime-fighting, he was pretty good… on foreign policy he was hesitant, with a mixed record. He was liked, even loved, but not a giant by any means. Then again, it’s hard for a president to become a giant in 34 months. His successor was to serve over five years in the office, and those five years were hard.
When JFK selected Lyndon Baines Johnson of Texas as his runningmate in 1960, it was for purely political reasons. They weren’t friends; they disagreed on policy, differed on demeanor, were diametrically opposed to each other on their understanding of, and respect for, the private sector. But JFK was convinced that this nation would not elect a cultured Massachusetts elitist without a lower-class Texan for balance. Perhaps he was right; JFK won the election in a squeaker. But was it worth the cost?
Lyndon B. Johnson won his first election through the use of vote fraud, and vote fraud remained in his toolkit throughout his career. He was rumored to have a public pricelist while a senator – this much to vote for a bill, this much to sponsor one – and he had a reputation for bullying in that genteel body so that he always got his way. Hardly the type of person a responsible man would put in charge of the reins of power.
LBJ presided over five years of transformation of the United States, and not in a good way. His presidency concocted a Vietnam policy of fighting with the brakes on… he appointed the corrupt Abe Fortas and the incompetent Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court… he steamrolled left-wing expansions of government through the Congress. His illogically designed Medicare and Medicaid programs started us down the path to the current devastation of Obamacare. His expansion of welfare served as the principal catalyst for the current destruction of the family in lower class America, particularly in the African-American community.
LBJ’s five years in office undid the economic benefits of JFK’s groundbreaking tax cuts, and set America on the path to inflation and unemployment that we suffered in the 1970s. He was, in virtually every way, the textbook example of a terrible, boorish, failure of a president.
Evaluating a President
In this context, our evaluation of JFK has to be different, doesn’t it? For all his faults – and yes, he had many, from his risky womanizing to his drug dependence and his foreign policy indecision – he was on balance at least a mediocre president, perhaps on track to having been a good one if he had lived.
But he didn’t live… and the five years that followed must be laid on his shoulders as well. If JFK had not picked LBJ as his runningmate, it is inconceivable that LBJ would ever have been elected to the presidency. It is simply impossible. The LBJ years are his fault.
So if we evaluate the late John F. Kennedy fairly, we must conclude that it was not a mixed record at all. It was a disaster, precisely because of that one week in 1960 when he agreed to install LBJ as his potential successor.
Some would say that he should be given a break on this count; he had no reason to suspect that he would be assassinated during his term, and at his young age, he would have no reason to expect to die of natural causes. But this is too generous. He was probably the sickliest president in our nation’s history (yes, even in a history that includes the wheelchair-bound FDR)… he had to know he would probably die young, and in fact that even without an assassin’s bullet, he would be lucky to see 50, the age at the end of a two-term presidency for him.
So even as all presidents ought to choose a vice president with succession in mind, JFK’s failure to do so is inexcusable.
This is not to say that JFK was a bad man, or even a bad politician. It is just to say that if he had prepared correctly – as George W. Bush did, for example – then the events of November 22, 1963 would not have been nearly as devastating for the nation as they were. The tears that fell from coast to coast on that day were genuine, but in the aftermath, as people realized who was to inherit the post when the dust settled, the fresh tears that followed from that revelation could so easily have been avoided.
Learning the Lessons of History
The time has come for both parties to acknowledge the error of our ways, in too many recent elections.
We support a policy, or an appointment, or a nominee, because we think the choice will win political points in the next election, without concern for the years ahead. Or we fear dismissing or impeaching an incompetent or a criminal, for fear of short-term political repercussions.
We raise taxes to pay current bills without solving unfunded pensions; we increase unemployment checks rather than reduce the regulatory explosion that creates millions of jobless Americans. We lower standards in schools rather than address the failure of students to learn; we sign treaties of capitulation with foreign threats rather than prepare for the long game in national defense.
America must learn the lessons of history. November 22 is as good as any to do so.
It was on this day, fifty years ago, that America began to suffer from the short-term political calculation by a New England Democrat, three years before. And as the programs of the Great Society and the War on Poverty that followed have never ceased causing destruction, we are all suffering still.
Yes, let us shed a tear for Jack Kennedy, on balance a decent president who meant well. But let us also learn from the greatest error of his life, and return to the spirit of our Founding Fathers, when any candidate would rather have lost an election than cause the loss of his country.
Copyright 2013 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago based Customs broker and trade compliance trainer. Born on November 22, 1962, he was a naïve toddler, celebrating his first birthday, on the day of JFK’s assassination. Throughout the following fifty years, no matter how anticlimactic any birthday present or party has been, they have always been better than that first one.
A shirt may not fit, a necktie might clash with everything, but it’s all fine. After you’ve been stuck with five years of President Johnson as a birthday present, you can perhaps be forgiven for thinking of birthdays as something less than “something to look forward to!”
Permission is hereby granted to forward freely, provided it is uncut and the IR URL and byline are included. Follow John F. Di Leo on Facebook or LinkedIn, or find him on Twitter at @johnfdileo.